Friday, October 24, 2014

7 Days 'Til Halloween: And the autumn moon is bright (The Wolf Man)

It’s a special Halloween-inspired edition of the 1001 Movies Blog Club, reaching back into the vaults for a horror icon from Universal's monster movie glory days: 1941's The Wolf Man. Despite my early efforts as a lad to familiarize myself with the classics, I had never seen The Wolf Man before this month. Blame the limited availability of home formats of the film when I was a kid, and the ever-ready excuse of limited availability of time in my adulthood. But the omission has been corrected, so let the reviewing proceed!

The interesting thing about The Wolf Man, to my mind, is that on the one hand it is usually thought of as part of a triumverate of archetypes along with Dracula and Frankenstein, but on the other hand if you start to break down the stories and the characters, The Wolf Man really follows its own path. That shouldn't be surprising, all things considered, especially source material: Dracula and Frankenstein both originated as novels written in the 19th century, whereas The Wolf Man jumps straight from werewolf folklore to screenplay in the 20th. If Curt Siodmak, who penned the film, was trying to craft a Gothic companion piece to the tales of the vampiric count or the mad scientist and his unholy creation, he did so only by preserving the elements of setting and a few key plot points, while subverting almost everything else.

Maybe the most telling difference is that while Count Dracula and Victor Frankenstein are decidedly European figures, Larry Talbot is American. Sure, he's the heir to an estate in Wales, where the entire movie takes place, and his father (played exquisitely by Claude Rains) is the lord of the manor, but Lon Chaney Jr. was from Oklahoma and plays prodigal son Larry as aw-shucks as he possibly can. Larry Talbot is (mostly) likable and relatable, and his non-lycanthropic struggles come down to pining for the girl next door who happens to already be engaged, and mending his relationship with his father after the tragic death of his brother. He's not a symbol of old world superstition, or the menace of unchecked and voracious sexuality, or the folly of hubris in the name of science. He's a regular guy, trying to find his way and maybe win the lady's love. He has no idea that his own story is going to become a tragedy.

And neither does the audience, at the outset, nor are we given any clues. I feel like I can't state this enough: Larry doesn't do anything wrong. He's a bit unserious, and a little aggressive and entitled in his initial pursuit of Gwen Conliffe (cultural mores have changed since the 40's, so what seems stalkerish to modern eyes is probably meant to be charmingly confident and essentially harmless). Ultimately Larry finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, as he and Gwen and Gwen's friend Jenny go to have the fortunes told by a gypsy (Bela Lugosi!), who unbeknownst to them has the curse of the werewolf. The gypsy transforms and attacks Jenny, and Larry rushes to her aid. Too late to save Jenny, he beats the wolf to death with his silver-headed walking stick, and is bitten during the fight. There's no real insinuation that Larry was too late coming to Jenny's aid through any punishable fault of his own, and the killing of the gypsy werewolf is treated as a mercy. Nevertheless, Larry is cursed, and becomes an unwitting and unwilling killer before finally being set free by death.

That makes The Wolf Man much more of a horror story than Dracula or Frankenstein, both of which are essentially morality plays in which events unfold but no one really undergoes growth or change, until inevitably evil is punished. Horror stories scare us because they imply that bad things happen for no real reason, and therefore could conceivably happen to us. I have never experimented in the realms beyond death where man was never meant to meddle, nor have I sold my soul to become a blood-drinking immortal. But could I be bitten by a wild animal while trying to help someone? If so, I could end up paying a disproportionately high price, and that is the genuine stuff of nightmares.

The sets used in The Wolf Man are all very Hollywood, but I think that actually serves the movie well in this case. Stepping away from the literal story about a man who becomes a savage beast, The Wolf Man is really a psychological drama about a man who feels he's losing touch with himself, or outright control over himself, and fears the uncertainty of the future. Most of the daytime shots are interiors, where everything is framed in straight lines, and the scenery stays properly out of the way. The nighttime exteriors, on the other hand, are chaotic, with dry-ice fog constantly swirling around the actors' feet, and gnarled tree trunks and branches making the spaces feel more claustrophobic, often interposing dark snaking shadows between the camera lens and the actors. It's a fantastic dichotomy that underlines the inner turmoil and mental tug-of-war Larry is going through.

And of course it's Lon Chaney Jr.'s performance as Larry that really makes or breaks the film. Despite the fact that he's the tallest, most broad-shouldered actor in the ensemble he projects such intense vulnerability and desperation that the woeful tale of his brief, terrifying time as a werewolf is heart-wrenching. The horror buffs who wrote the books I devoured as a kid praised Lon Chaney Jr. for the sheer mental and physical endurance it took to have the werewolf makeup applied, only to then skulk and lurch across the movie sets in an animalistic gait that sold the concept completely, but while all of that praise is deserved I think it shortchanges the humanistic acting the man delivered as Larry Talbot, the reason we care in the first place. Whichever side you come to the movie for, the wolf or the man, it's unlikely you'll walk away disappointed.

1 comment:

  1. Last night I watched the 1931 classic version of Frankenstein...and hated it. Karloff was great, and there were touches here and there, but overall it was pretty crap. Thing is, it's still widely regarded as a great movie, even today.

    If you've seen it, I ask you: what am I missing?